All that Is Human
reviewed by Brother Charles
Ronald Isetti. All that is Human: The Life of ‘Brother Leo’ Meehan. [Bloomington, Indiana]: Xlibris, 2016. $3.99 digital, $23.99 paperback, $34.99 hardcover.
Emeritus Professor Ronald Isetti recently published a biography of former Brother Leo Meehan, F.S.C. (1881-1966), who taught at Saint Mary’s College from 1908 to 1941. Isetti demonstrates admirably the merit of a book-length study of his subject. The book may be read profitably for its insight into the local culture of learning and letters in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the College’s long practice of the liberal arts, and her history, especially during the Great Depression. Of lesser general interest are the details of the private life of Brother Leo both as a Christian Brother and afterwards, an aspect of the book which reads towards the end almost reverently as tales told among friends and disciples.
San Francisco as an international entrepot during its first half-century and more nurtured and welcomed a remarkable range of literati. Among them, Isetti mentions Ina Coolbrith, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Oscar Wilde, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. Brother Leo, himself, entered the ranks of published authors with his essays and textbooks and, to a lesser degree, plays and novel. Equally if not more historically significant is Brother Leo’s accomplishments as a public speaker. Isetti claims with good evidence that he was the greatest public orator in America of the Depression Era. The biographer’s account of Brother Leo’s visionary leadership in the liberal arts gives a corrective to misconception that it was the Great Books Program of the 1940s that gave the College its tradition in this regard. It would be more accurate to say that a common core of reading the Western canon in translation found a welcome reception and fertile ground here. Cor ad cor loquitur. Brother Leo, as Isetti tells the story, was the main protagonist, with the help of Hagerty and others, in giving Saint Mary’s its own vision of a human and Christian education. Three passages from the biography can illustrate this point.
“It is the function of the college to fling open the windows of the soul. History, philosophy, science, art and architecture and all other subjects in the curriculum are designed to give a broad conception of life and a deep understanding of life. Some of these windows face east and some face west, but all of them invite to universal vision” (Brother Leo, from a 1935 newspaper column, p. 213).
“Above all else, Brother Leo was inspiring both in his person and his message. He possessed the marvelous ability of opening people’s minds and hearts to the beauty of great literature, especially to the treasures of the European Catholic tradition and to the possibility of leading a good and reflective life beyond the mindless pursuit of pleasure, money, and power” (p. 303).
“As an educator, Brother Leo upheld the value of the liberal arts in combating ignorance, freeing the mind, and undermining groupthink. Against the professionalism of his and any other age, he upheld the ideal of attending college to become a richer, more thoughtful, and more highly cultured human being” (p. 413).
Brother Leo, though he ended his life outside of the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools, comes across as a true son of Saint La Salle. He was a master teacher. Isetti opines, “Three things make a great teacher: knowledge, clarity, and enthusiasm. Brother Leo possessed all of them to a superlative degree” (p. 413). The praise tendered by the biographer can easily be lifted from the Brothers’ Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher.
The title of the book is drawn from Terence’s oft-quoted saying, “I am human, therefore nothing human can ever be alien to me” (Latin: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” from The Self-Tormentor). This is a passage that students of Brother Leo recall him saying in class. It is also something this reviewer first learned from the author in his U. S. History courses here at the College. The passage evokes the open spirit of medieval and Renaissance humanism bequeathed to the European university tradition. The book is dedicated to the late Brother Paul Figueroa, F.S.C., master of novices for a generation of Christian Brothers, who was, by all accounts, an embodiment of enlightened humanity. Isetti has written a book which is, to quote the subtitle of one of Brother Leo’s books, “reading for profit and pleasure.” (4) It is a page-turner for anyone with interest in our alma mater.
(1) Francis Meehan, Living Upstairs: Reading for Profit and Pleasure. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1942. The book bears the name of Brother Leo after he left the Brothers.
photo credit: Brother Charles